I have a revised appreciation for Beckett’s Happy Days. I’ve always revered it, but I didn’t know what I was missing till I too was buried to my neck in dirt. ‘That’s what I find so wonderful,’ as Winnie repeatedly says.
When I first read Happy Days, I was nineteen and utterly in love with Samuel Beckett, never having been actually in love. I understood the play as a surreal and minimalist exploration of the human existential dilemma. But not as an exploration of relationships or as a picture of daily domestic betrayal and the ambiguous salvation of love.
On my way to the theatre the other night, I thought I remembered Happy Days well. I was wrong, and my lapses in recollection are telling. I remembered Winnie in all her complexity, remembered her as a Pollyanna, a poet, a stoic, a romantic and a sometimes-firebrand. But I forgot the only story she tells in full, and tells twice over: how a man and woman (‘a Mr and perhaps a Mrs Shower – no – they are holding hands – his fiancée then more likely’) were the last humans, beyond Willie, to witness her predicament. The man says to the woman, ‘Why doesn’t he dig her out?’ He is speaking of Willie. ‘Dig her out,’ he says, ‘dig her out, no sense in her like that . . . I’d dig her out with my bare hands.’
So why doesn’t Willie dig Winnie out? The other night at the theatre, I asked that question for the first time.
I’m not blaming Willie. There’s an argument to be made for his intrinsic inability to lift a finger. (In fact, Winnie asks him to ‘raise a finger’ if he is ‘not quite senseless,’ and he is a ‘darling,’ because he raises five.) Willie’s inability to help his wife from her hole may be as non-negotiable as Winnie being in the hole in the first place. Both desire and reason are powerless against we-know-not-what: when Winnie raises her parasol ‘reason says, Put it down, Winnie, it is not helping you, put the thing down and get on with something else.’ She says, ‘I cannot.’ And as to her hat: ‘Put on your hat now, Winnie, like a good girl, it’ll do you good.’ But no, she can’t.
Still, I’m loath to forgive Willie. If he wanted to dig her out . . . if he really want to . . .
Here’s something else I forgot: I forgot how the play ends. I forgot it so completely I was actually surprised. (Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know.) In Act II, Winnie is up to her neck in it, and Willie is gone. Winnie believes he’s dead and pretends to herself he’s not, which, in fact, he isn’t; he has abandoned Winnie to the echoes of her own voice and incremental burial alive. Dressed as if for his wedding, Willie reappears. He crawls to Winnie. She hopes he will kiss her and not grab for the gun. ‘Win,’ he says. She sings her old song: ‘you love me so.’ Curtain.
So does Happy Days depict the restricted human condition – whether divinely or accidently decreed – or does it explore the imprisoning dependencies of love and its correlate, hate? I’d say it’s both.
At an inexperienced nineteen, I didn’t misread Happy Days. But a person reads a book and at the same time reads her life, and I hadn’t yet read far into the latter. I hope I’m only halfway through reading it now, for I may see Happy Days differently again at ninety. Winnie, buried to her neck with an inaccessible gun at her mouth, appears as a poster girl for assisted suicide. But never mind that now. Now, what I see is Beckett exploring the manner in which a husband and wife merge and separate, truncate and hide, bury and stick, love and, in lieu of love, need.
I still love Samuel Beckett – I even wrote a two-minute play entitled A Love Story (for Samuel Beckett) – and I love him most in the form of Winnie and her sorry vying for happiness. Happy Days is a shattering play, doggedly hopeful, infused with despair. A love story in existential paralysis, told with a brolly and gun. If you’re in London, see it at the Young Vic. A glorious production.